Shell tapped program prexy at Comcast

Exec will oversee interest in E!, Style, G4, Golf Channel

NEW YORK — Former Gemstar TV Guide chief Jeff Shell will become programming prexy of giant cabler Comcast effective May 2.

Shell will oversee the Philadelphia-based Comcast’s interest in E!, Style, G4, Golf Channel, Outdoor Life, TV One, international networks, the nascent kids and Sony/MGM nets and regional sports network investments. He will report to chief operating officer Steve Burke.

News came Thursday as Comcast reported a robust 10.4% jump in profits last quarter. Chairman-CEO Brian Roberts said on a conference call that the company’s interest in Adelphia indicates its “belief in the cable business’s future” and a desire to unwind its 21% stake in Time Warner Cable.

Time Warner and Comcast have offered $17 billion to acquire Adelphia, with Time Warner contributing the lion’s share of cash.

Roberts said Comcast will grow its cable network biz, but “we don’t see anything for sale — hasn’t been for a long time.” He said the cabler is more likely to expand internally, in partnership with companies “or entrepreneurs.”

He said in the early morning call that Comcast would “enhance its management” in the content biz — a hint of the Shell announcement that came several hours later.

Appointment had been rumored for months, gaining steam after Shell ankled News Corp.’s Gemstar TV Guide in December. He had agreed to remain with the company during a transition period.

Shell, a longtime News Corp. exec, was formerly prexy of the Fox Cable Networks Group. Prior to that he worked in strategic planning at Walt Disney and at investment bank Salomon Brothers.

Shell was installed at Gemstar in 2002 to navigate a series of challenges as the company’s accounting came under fire, prompting enormous write downs, a federal probe and a plunging stock. He sought to rebuild credibility on Wall Street and oversaw a redesign of the TV Guide channel and flagship magazine.

On the earnings front, Comcast’s net profit rose to $423 million in the fourth quarter from $383 million the year before. Revenue rose to $5.24 billion from $4.74 billion.

For the full year, Comcast earned $970 million, down from $3.24 billion. Annual revenue surged past the $20 billion mark, rising to $20.3 billion from $18.3 billion in 2003.

Comcast added 1.7 million high-speed Internet customers last year. It said 8.6 million, or 40% of its 21.5 million customers, are digital. Those subs ordered 560 million on-demand programs last year, and execs said they expect that figure to exceed 1 billion this year.

Roberts said that Comcast has started offering a small sampling of three Sony pics, which it expects to bump up to 75 in March. When the MGM deal closes, he said Comcast will offer a constantly refreshed selection of 200 movies.

Sony, Comcast and several financial partners are awaiting EU approval to seal their purchase of MGM.

Comcast said advertising revenue jumped 16% to $1.3 billion.

This year Comcast, like other cablers, will focus on rolling out phone service.

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